In this Pathfinder Tales novel, a self-centered, money-driven thief is sent on a wild, weird adventure, meets some new friends (including an exceptional troll), hints at some greater destiny, then ends up still self-centered and money-driven. Luckily, there’s a roller coaster ride of a plot in between.
Song of the Serpent was written by Hugh Matthews, which is a pen name for Matt Hughes, or Matthew Hughes, depending on which genre he’s writing in (I guess our minds just couldn’t handle the possibility that the exact same guy who wrote a fantasy tie-in novel also wrote some crime stories). It concerns a man named Krunzle, a thief. Krunzle is caught stealing from a rich guy’s estate, captured, and forcibly sent on an errand at the rich guy’s behest.
The thing about Krunzle is, he’s kind of a dick. Certainly, protagonists don’t need to be (nay, should not be) perfect little angels, but it’s tough to find any redeeming qualities in Krunzle. He’s sarcastic, disloyal, opportunistic, and utterly focused on stealing more money to make life easier for Krunzle. If there were some dynamic at work, some history explaining this, or some redefining moment that changes him in the course of the novel, that would work. But there is not. He seems to have virtually no personal history, and is the exact same unlikable little bastard on the last page as he is on page one. Frankly, he’d have worked much better as a secondary character.
His strange adventure, though, is a solid action ride. The rich guy’s personal wizard, Thang-Sha, puts an enchanted choker on Krunzle’s neck. It’s in the shape of a snake and communicates with Krunzle telepathically. It’s name is Chirk, and if Krunzle ever declines to do what it wants, it can choke him out. Chirk also controls an enchanted pair of boots and a magic sword. The boots send Krunzle on his way to find the rich guy’s daughter and her boyfriend, as well as magic thingy that they stole. The scenes of Krunzle bounding over hill and dale, carried by the boots, or speeding down a river as they furiously kick, are positively Seussian in their weirdness.
Krunzle is enslaved by some people who are bigger jerks than he is, and the means of his eventual escape is hilarious, gruesome, firey, and results in a small band of traveling companions: an enigmatic man named Raimeau, who believes he plays a part in some grand destiny; an unusually intelligent and ambitious troll named Skanderbrog; and Gyllana, the rich guy’s daughter. Later they meet a bald dwarf bent on restoring the dwarves to their ancient glory. They all (save the troll) share certain dreams that have been leading them on certain paths. To discover the fate their dreams allude to, they must find the man who kidnapped Gyllana and stole the rich guy’s artifact.
At this point, the story starts to unravel a bit too much for my liking. What had been a fun series of odd encounters gets bogged down by everyone’s vague destiny. The last third or so of the book has some cool moments and nicely executed set pieces (like a stirring battle between dwarven and orcish armies, and a mysterious chamber made of blue diamond). There’s also some mystery, as Chirk the magic snake slowly unveils his own mysterious past (and Krunzle/Chirk’s telepathic repartee is excellent). But there’s also a sense of relentlessly driving toward a plot resolution that ends up feeling forced. What had been a novel about small people dealing with the difficult events of their lives suddenly decides it has to be a big deal of cosmic proportions, and it doesn’t quite make sense.
It is, technically, a spoiler for me to reveal that the rich guy’s wizard, Thang-Sha, is behind it all, but honestly, if you didn’t see it coming from roughly page 20, you weren’t paying much attention. Trust me, I didn’t give anything away (and there are several other mysteries far less transparent to be revealed). Thang-Sha is a cartoonish villain straight from the Fu-Manchu/Yellow Claw school of “evil Asian wizard.” He even drops a huge monologue on the heroes at the climactic scene to explain what all his plotting and scheming had been about.
While I enjoyed reading Song of the Serpent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a fast summer read, I did find it a bit hollow. I’d much rather read a novel about Skanderbrog than Krunzle.